There may be some things more fun than hanging out with Candice Bergen and talking about Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Princess Diana, Princess Grace, John Belushi, Donald Trump, Charles Manson, getting fat, getting old, getting wrinkled and not giving a damn.
But I don’t know of anything.
The woman who once specialized in playing icy Nordic beauties has a great throaty, spontaneous laugh. She’s an adventuress who has traveled to the most exotic spots, often solo with her camera. And she’s a Scheherazade who can tell witty stories about a Tiffany’s window of glitterati.
I mean, she was at Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball in 1966 at the Plaza, wearing Halston’s white mink mask with the long bunny ears and pink satin nose, chatting up newlyweds Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra. Need I say more?
“There was a guy who wore an executioner’s hood,” Ms. Bergen recalled of the party. “It got a little creepy.” She doesn’t wear fur and hasn’t eaten meat in 40 years, but still has the bunny mask on display in her living room in New York.
The Bergen family traces the history of show business in America, from the rise of her father, Edgar, in vaudeville, radio and fledgling TV as a ventriloquist — with a smart-aleck dummy named Charlie McCarthy — to Candice’s own half-century career in movies and TV, capped by her five Emmys for “Murphy Brown.”
When she was young, her parents had Christmas smorgasbords at their Beverly Hills house with the cream of Old Hollywood: the Reagans schmoozing; Fred Astaire twirling her mother, Frances; and Rex Harrison singing songs from “My Fair Lady” accompanied by Henry Mancini on the piano.
Then, in the 1970s, Ms. Bergen became the first woman to host “Saturday Night Live.” She chummed around with Mr. Nicholson, Mike Nichols and the hip crowd of moviemakers who ushered in what was then known as New Hollywood.
Now, at 74, Ms. Bergen is in the swim with streaming, starring with Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest in “Let Them All Talk,” an extemporaneous movie for HBO Max, directed and filmed by Steven Soderbergh with a hand-held camera on board the Queen Mary 2, as actual passengers wandered about.
“The passengers were really overweight,” Ms. Bergen recalled with a mischievous smile. “They were good little eaters on this incredibly elegant ship.”
As we started our nearly three-hour Zoom interview, she walked with her iPad to the window to show me the view from her “tiny” house in Pacific Palisades, high above the ocean.
“The neighborhood is very comforting because it’s just lovely little houses,” she said. “A couple of big ones have come crashing in.” She had come to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving with her younger brother, Kris. Usually, she can be found at the posh Fifth Avenue apartment she shares with Marshall Rose, a widowed real estate developer and philanthropist she married in 2000. He “has been facing health challenges with grace and elegance for the past few years,” she said. Ms. Bergen had difficult caretaking duties with her first husband, Louis Malle, the French director. Their marriage lasted 15 years, until Mr. Malle died in 1995 after an agonizing battle with lymphoma.
When she was single, Ms. Bergen lived in another little house in Los Angeles that was once occupied by Katharine Hepburn and, before that, by John Barrymore’s birds.
“I found fantastic paintings of men with plumes in their turbans and fantastic birds with elaborate plumage,” she said of the Barrymore aviary-turned-guesthouse. “It was like a little tiny chapel. There were stained-glass windows in the cupola. One showed he and Dolores Costello in a scene from ‘The Sea Beast.’ Nobody wanted the house. There was no garage. It was just useless. But it was heaven.”
Bruce, half-Saint Bernard and half-poodle, was by Ms. Bergen’s side. She was wearing a striped T-shirt and shoes made out of African indigo cotton by Ibu, an online group of women’s cooperatives from around the world, which features designs by her old friend, Ali MacGraw. (Ms. Bergen also sells bags and other merch online featuring her whimsical artwork, all for charity.)
I asked how she felt about the election.
“When I found out that Biden had won, I was going out of my building and I heard honking and people screaming and I said to the doorman, ‘What’s happening? Is there a parade?’ He said, ‘He won.’ And I just burst into tears. It was just such a relief. We just needed a sense of decency, a sense of kindness.” She added, for the president-elect: “May the wind be at his back because he’s going to need it.”
I noted that she will have to put away her “Free Melania” sweater.
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “That’ll have to be repurposed somehow.”
“My life is a very tiny life now,” she said, referring to coronavirus restrictions and tending Mr. Rose. “I don’t mind it, frankly. For someone in their 70s, it’s not a tragedy.” The couple have quiet dinners and watch “The West Wing” in a dark red room covered with dog paintings. “I’m an old person,” Ms. Bergen said, and then, later, stretching out her neck for me to see: “I have a wattle.”
“I would like to embrace being 74,” she said. “I mean, my hair is white up here. My Covid color, turns out, is white. I probably will leave my wattle."
Ms. Bergen, who had her eyes done during “Murphy Brown” — “because they were very hooded and people were talking” — continued, “I know I should have injections. I have deep lines along my lip.” But “I can’t take the pain.
“When I go to get my makeup done, the woman who does it says, when she is finished, ‘Now you look like Candice Bergen again.’ Because when I start, it’s like, ‘Uh, what a wreck.’ Stuff goes.”
‘The Elephant in the Room’
Ms. Bergen has always been blunt about not starving herself or doing extreme procedures to preserve her looks. She declared in her second memoir “A Fine Romance,” published in 2015: “I am a champion eater. No carb is safe — no fat either.”
She told me, “I was never a good dieter,” adding brightly: “I ate an entire pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, all by myself in my kitchen. Without the crust, but the entire filling of the pie.”
Her daughter, Chloe Malle, a writer and contributing editor at Vogue, said that Ms. Bergen’s lack of vanity is an extension of her I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, which can be both stressful and refreshing.
“She really doesn’t care and would rather eat the cookie,” Ms. Malle said. “She has eaten mocha ice cream and Cheetos for her entire dinner. Most of quarantine, she has been strolling through Central Park with Bruce in her pajamas and the coat she got on Amazon, her hair sticking up, going into a Big Edie and Little Edie vibe.”
Ms. Malle continued: “I grew up with my friends’ dads saying ‘Oh, my God, I remember when your mom was young. She was a knockout.’ I think she had great insecurity around the fact that people have always focused on that. It can be quite a burden. There’s something freeing about her beauty not being the only thing people are focused on.”
Ms. Bergen writes perceptively in her two memoirs about the phenomenon of beauty creating its own rules of conduct. “It’s often the elephant in the room and you’re the elephant handler,” as she put it.
After her 1967 Vogue cover in her modeling days and her movie debut in “The Group” in 1966, where she played the risky role of Lakey, a lesbian — “People saw posters of me in gay bars after that,” she said, pleased — Ms. Bergen’s perfect nose spurred a flood of plastic surgeries.
“Doctors used to come up to me and say could they take a cast of my nose,’’ she said. “I said, ‘Go away.’ My nose was very important to people. I never even thought about it. It’s strange.”
When she gave birth to her daughter, she mused about whether it would be better if Chloe were not beautiful.
“Obviously, I don’t deal with it anymore,” the actress told me. When she thinks back, Ms. Bergen said, the problem is “that’s all you are to people is what you look like. No one tries to find out if there’s anyone home. It works against your own self-development, because it’s hard to find out what you think about things and what your opinions are because nobody cares. You don’t have to engage your brain for any reason. I think that’s why I went off and photographed and wrote pieces, just to get out of the line of fire.”
Ms. Bergen has seen this happen to the opposite sex as well. “You’re semi-glorified but you’re also negated. You really have to make an effort to become someone more than what your presentation is.”
She speaks highly of her famous leading men: Caine, McQueen, Connery and especially Nicholson. Early in her career, she got scathing reviews. After “The Group” came out, Pauline Kael wrote about Ms. Bergen in Life magazine that “As an actress, her only flair is in her nostrils.” Reviewing “The Adventurers,” The New York Times said that Ms. Bergen “performs as though clubbed over the head.”
But on “S.N.L.” and in the 1979 film “Starting Over,” in which she belted out songs like a cat in pain, and then in “Murphy Brown,” Ms. Bergen discovered she had comedic timing, perhaps honed as a child in her father’s holiday skits with Charlie McCarthy. Younger fans laughed at Ms. Bergen as a rabid former beauty queen in “Miss Congeniality” and as a Vogue editor in “Sex and the City.”
She recalled her first “S.N.L.” hosting gig, in 1975, as “pure, distilled terror.” (Lorne Michaels, a friend, said the expression in her eyes that night was “like Patty Hearst when the Symbionese Liberation Army rang her doorbell.” She eventually joined the show’s Five-Timers Club.)
Ms. Bergen recalled: “Belushi and Danny Aykroyd, who were best friends, were being very cute, and sort of flirtatious, kind of like young guys with an older woman. They were very dear, actually. Belushi had not yet started going to California to do drugs. They were all jealous of Lorne and resentful of his authority. I always got that from cast members. Lorne was a miracle. It was just staggering, the things they could pull off.”
Is it harder for beautiful women to be funny?
“I think men don’t like beautiful women to make fun of themselves,’’ the actress said. “They don’t like you to wear funny hats. They don’t like you to look less than a dignified, beautiful woman. I’ve noticed that. For me, being funny is my joy. Doing ‘Murphy’ was just such a gift for me.” She was very disappointed that the reboot did not catch on.
Her new movie is about three women who go to college together, fall out of touch and reunite when Alice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist played by Ms. Streep, invites the other two on a crossing to London. It turns out that Alice learned about an affair that Ms. Bergen’s character, Roberta, had, which caused her rich husband to divorce her, stranding her to a life selling lingerie at a high-end department store — and then appropriated this plotline for a book.
Unlike Ms. Bergen, Roberta is pinched and bruised by grievances. At one point, Roberta wonders if men will want her given that she’s “old rotten meat.” It’s startling, more so knowing Ms. Bergen improvised the line.
In her big confrontation scene with Ms. Streep’s character on the boat, Ms. Bergen was jittery. As they sat down to shoot a scene, they received an outline from Deborah Eisenberg, the short story writer and Columbia professor (and Wallace Shawn’s longtime companion).
“They tell you what the nub of the scene is, and then you just have to flail around,” Ms. Bergen said.
She did do research. “Candy told us she actually flew to Houston to see oil rigs as preparation for her role,’’ Ms. Wiest said, adding that Ms. Bergen conjured a character who “was so poor as a child, her only pet was a snake and her single mother worked as a housekeeper. I thought, ‘Wow, Hollywood royalty does deep research!’ She dressed herself like a real Texas babe. I sat across the table from her in the film and thought, she’s doing nothing obvious and yet I’d swear she sprang from Texas dirt.”
Ms. Streep said she was surprised when Ms. Bergen, whom she did not know previously, was standoffish. “I thought, ‘She hates me.’” Then she realized that Ms. Bergen was using a “method-y” approach.
Now, she notes, “Candy is sort of like a sister I never had,’’ with traits that are shy and sly, kind and sharp, all at the same time. And then, she said, there’s that surprising, throwing-her-head-back laugh, which Ms. Bergen used to great effect in the 1971 film “Carnal Knowledge.”
Ms. Bergen had never done improv. “At her age, she doesn’t have to do any of this,’’ said her friend Diane English, the creator of “Murphy Brown.” “She has such respect for the script and the written word and she works so hard to get exactly right. This is a huge challenge for her. But she wants another challenge. It’s daunting but she totally embraced it.”
Mr. Soderbergh agreed, noting that he has seen many older actors “move bag and baggage into the third person, as though their names are in quotation marks, sort of disconnected from themselves.”
He said that with Ms. Bergen, on the other hand, “You can’t throw one past her. You better know what you’re talking about and what you’re doing.”
I told Ms. Bergen that in her climactic confrontation with Ms. Streep’s character on the boat, she could have channeled the moment in 1980 when she had her only Oscar nomination, for “Starting Over,” and lost to Ms. Streep, who won for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
“One of the first of her 18 nominations,’’ Ms. Bergen said dryly. (It’s 21.)
I wondered about the movie’s theme about strained female friendship. Ms. Bergen wrote in her first memoir, “Knock Wood,” that she did not have many women friends when she was younger, and that women were often “wary” of her.
“Certainly, going into parties, my task for myself was to disarm myself, to go, ‘I’ve got no weapons. I’m here. I come in friendship,’” she said. “Because the women would back way up.”
She added: “Of course, as you get older, women’s relationships become primary relationships because we know so many women are widows, so many women are single, and they become their own pod and form these groups.”
Her friends gush about her. Ali MacGraw loves the fact that Ms. Bergen — “a real American beauty with enormous class” — never wears anything that’s trying too hard and that she entertains and decorates with a sense of whimsy.
“When she lived in the fabulous former artist’s studio on Central Park South,’’ Ms. MacGraw remembered, “on one table there was a glass of milk spilled on the glass top. I don’t know how many times I tried to clean that up before I realized it was a fake.”
Ms. Bergen’s most important relationship is with her daughter. “The birth of my daughter was the greatest event in my life,’’ she said.
Some would argue, Ms. Malle said wryly, that the umbilical cord is still not severed. Ms. Bergen raised Chloe mostly on her own in Los Angeles, where she lived for the 10 years of “Murphy Brown.” After Louis Malle lost the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for the 1987 film “Au Revoir Les Enfants,” his dislike of Los Angeles deepened and he went back to France to work.
“I was very happy being married to Louis,’’ Ms. Bergen said. “He was really a great love of my life and we had a great time together, but you’re pulled in different directions and then you have a child and they become the love of your life and that’s hard.” She added, “The distance was very hard on the marriage and then the balance of power was in question,’’ referring to her growing fame with “Murphy Brown.”
Now she is focused on her 6-month-old grandson, Artie. “He’s just the dumpling,’’ she said. “He’s just the best arrival of joy in one’s life. I’m crying. I’m just looking forward to the future with Artie.”
She asked her daughter if she could take over a dilapidated barn, one of two on the land that Chloe and her husband, Graham Albert, a financier, bought in Connecticut. “That’s all I need,” mother told daughter. “That’s where I’m going to retire.”
Now, said an amused Ms. Malle, “she has built a Gil Schafer mini-manse on the site. She said it’s the smallest project he’s ever taken on.”
I ask Ms. Bergen what she thought of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” released last year.
“The feeling of it,’’ she said, “was very close.”
In the late 1960s, she and her boyfriend at the time, Terry Melcher, a record producer and the son of Doris Day, had lived in the house on Cielo Drive before Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. It has been said that a reason Manson targeted that house was because he was angry Mr. Melcher didn’t give him a record contract.
“Terry was very stupid and he went out there to record Manson’s group singing,’’ Ms. Bergen said. “He knew it was very loaded, and one of Manson’s people came to the door once when I was at the house. Then one day, Terry just said, ‘We’re moving.’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow.’ His mother had a house in Malibu that became David Geffen’s house where we went. Then they took the telescope off our balcony at the beach house. It was like Manson saying, ‘Don’t try to hide from me.’”
And about that famous date with Donald Trump, when she was at the University of Pennsylvania?
He was shy, quiet and introspective, one presumes?
“Yes, in fact his knowledge of philosophy goes way beyond,” she said, laughing. “We went to, I think, a steakhouse but he picked me up from school in a limousine, which was unusual, and it was a burgundy limousine and he was wearing a burgundy suit and burgundy patent leather boots. I just thought, this guy can color coordinate with the best of them. I think I was home by 9. I remember it being just very slow going and heavy lifting, it was just like pulling a sledge. And then I was home early.”
There was another renowned date in the 1970s, with Henry Kissinger, arranged by family friends. Ms. Bergen went ahead with it at the puckish urging of her counterculture boyfriend, Bert Schneider, and his pal, Abbie Hoffman, who wanted intel on the Vietnam War.
She said if it wasn’t the best date she ever had, it was “certainly the best-guarded. Some family friends invited Frank Sinatra and a date and Henry Kissinger and me for dinner. I remember, when he was late, getting a call that the Secret Service couldn’t find Beverly Hills. It was concerning. The whole dinner was just a mano-a-mano between Frank and Henry. I think Frank won.”
When I noted that Ms. Bergen had to be the only person on earth who was friends with both Nancy Reagan and Huey Newton, she laughed and agreed.
I said it was surprising Mr. Sinatra did not woo her.
“He did ask a friend of mine for my contact but it wasn’t given,’’ she said, with a prim smile.
Charlie McCarthy is now in the Smithsonian. Ms. Bergen wrote about her shock when her father left money in his will to her “older, all-powerful brother” — the dummy — and not to her. She used to talk to a shrink about their relationship, which she calls the zaniest sibling rivalry ever, but she said it was too wacky even for a therapist.
She has reconciled her feelings toward her wooden “brother” — and her father, who was a loving but emotionally distant child of Swedish immigrants. She said that she has Charlie McCarthy memorabilia on display and her daughter has windup toys and salt and pepper shakers.
“The older I get, the more fierce I am about my pride in being a ventriloquist’s daughter,’’ Ms. Bergen said. “I just think it’s the weirdest thing.”
[Putting words in her mouth? No, just a holiday round of Confirm or Deny.]
Maureen Dowd: You would have loved to work with Alfred Hitchcock.
Candice Bergen: Yes. I would have been a Hitchcock blonde. I did have lunch with Grace and Prince Rainier at David Niven Jr.’s house in the South of France. David and I had grown up together. The Rainiers came for lunch, and we talked about this and that. It was fantastic. She was lovely. And afterward, an interviewer said, “Who will be the next Grace Kelly?” She said, “Perhaps it’s Candice Bergen.”
You used to figure out who you wanted to date with the help of a shoe code.
If you wanted to place really high on the board, Italian loafers. Any kind of loafer basically got you in the door, or sneakers. But no cordovans, no wingtips.
You’ve read Matthew McConaughey’s memoir twice.
All right, all right, all right. No.
You love listening to the podcast “Call Her Daddy.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve never listened to a podcast because I don’t know how. I know there’s a podcast app someplace, so I’m going to do that. I have to find my earphones first.
You have James Bond’s old couch.
Yes, Roger Moore’s — because I once bought his house. My daughter has it.
You love practical jokes but it’s harder in the woke culture.
I think you have to pick your subjects more carefully. It’s a very structured moment in time.
Your biggest regret is missing the famous Diana and Charles dinner-dance at the Reagan White House.
I was pregnant with Chloe and she was two and a half weeks late. Mrs. Reagan was calling me and she said, “Candy, what’s happening? We’d love you to be there.” I couldn’t go. Chloe was born the day before.
You miss sitting on the bed and watching bad TV and smoking pot with Sue Mengers.
Well, I do. That was fun.
You would like to die the way the Maasai do, where they just lay you out in the savanna as a buffet for the animals.
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